Question B passed Nov. 6 with about 58 percent of the voters siding with the Montgomery County government, agreeing that the Fraternal Order of Police had too much power over policies best left in the hands of police management.
Before Election Day, FOP Lodge 35 engaged in a full court press on what they saw as an infringement of their union rights. Voters likely haven’t heard the final buzzer. One could expect the union, in 2014, to endorse candidates willing to revisit the issue.
Until then, the FOP is raising valid questions about what the county can and cannot do in the course of referendum. They deserve a thoughtful airing. An FOP lawyer, Lanny Davis, wants a criminal investigation. He believes the county violated election law by using county employees and county funds to support its political position. State Prosecutor Emmett C. Davitt declined to investigate, asking for an opinion from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. Davis took his case to U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein.
Though legal minds disagree on whether the county’s actions broke any law, it is clear that the county’s actions deserve more review. Had Montgomery’s leaders followed state campaign laws, voters could be assured they were witness to a fair debate of competing ideas.
First, some background: Question B was the referendum over a County Council law passed in July 2011 that stripped the FOP of what is called “effects bargaining” — the right to bargain the effects of management decisions. The law didn’t change anything related to salaries, benefits and working conditions; all remain mandatory issues for contract talks. But other management decisions — such as shift assignments or allowances for clothing — can and were taken to the bargaining table. To the county’s eyes, they were too often taken to the bargaining table.
Now, the questions: Should county have formed a campaign committee to handle its expenditures in support of the referendum?
When a proposed ambulance fee was a ballot question in 2010, the county received advice that it could use taxpayer funds to direct employees and produce materials because it was defending an existing county policy. Based on that advice, the county pushed ahead with its in-house drive to see Question B pass.
How much was spent? Campaign finance law required the FOP to form a committee, which maintained an accounting of its donations and expenditures. According to its Oct. 26 report with the state Board of Elections, “Citizens for Effective Law Enforcement Against Question B” spent about $140,000. Another filing is due Nov. 27.
Because no county committee exists, no detailed accounting exists. Patrick Lacefield, director of the Office of Public Information, said a report will come in due time. No one should expect its expenditures to be exorbitant, but what’s important here aren’t the amounts of money but the standards of accuracy that will be applied. If the FOP leaves out a donation or expense, it faces sanction from the state. The county will release its information under the Public Information Act, where mistakes carry no penalties.
Another question: Did the county government give itself improper access to advertisement posters on county transit Ride On buses? County policy permits commercial and government messages on the sides of its buses. It allowed its own pro-Question B ads but prohibited the FOP’s contrary ads. Here, county policies are knotted. Administrators see no difference between urging you to get a flu shot or pleading for your vote in the ballot box. However, the FOP’s plea for votes is improper. The county received a scolding from the American Civil Liberties Union over its policies, rare for a county that takes pride as a leader in good government.
By themselves, the bus ads are a sideshow to the referendum. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) issued an 11th-hour reprieve that eliminated the bureaucratic roadblocks to the FOP’s bus ads. But the timing was too late for the subcontractors who place the ads on the buses, effectively limiting the FOP’s bus advertising options.
Even though they’re a sideshow, the ads are part of an overarching question: Was the county defending an established policy in support of Question B, or was it taking a political position?
Wouldn’t common sense say that if an ad opposing a contested county policy is political, so would an ad in favor of it? Denying the FOP access to the bus ads seems to lend weight to the latter position. And that denial could lead one to believe that even in the minds of county leaders, Question B is about asserting political will, which is why this discussion is important.
The right of referendum is an important check to governmental power. State campaign finance laws check the power of deep-pocketed interests in an election, whether that means a rich candidate trying to buy an election, or a county with significant resources. Montgomery’s leaders should have realized that a fair debate was more important than winning the debate. What happens when a much smaller entity — a church, a small business or an individual — believes a new county law impinges their freedom and brings the issue to referendum? Will the county smother its opposition in the name of defending its policies?
The General Assembly should weigh in. There may be nothing illegal in the county’s Question B campaign, but at the very least, it smells bad in the rose garden of good-government Montgomery County.